Stroll down memory lane with Dashboards and Xcelsius

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A few weeks ago, I had a great podcast titled Business Intelligence Apps, where I talked with Donald MacCormick and the guys from Diversified Semantic Layer about how technology and business expectations have re-classified the “dashboard”.  An intensified focus on mobility and expanded requirements for dashboards have forced us to re-think how we design and deploy apps to business users. From my perspective, the Xcelsius / SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards that we have been constructing are generally light-weight BI Apps. As Donald points out in the webcast, from 2005-2006 we called them “models”, and from 2006-2012 we have called them “Dashboards”.. At some point we may refer to the output of SAP Dashboards as “BI Apps.”

A majority of the podcast was a stroll down memory lane where we talked about the exciting times and struggles leading us to where we are today. That led me down the path to document my own experience with dashboards.

HOW I FOUND XCELSIUS

Xcelsius flew onto my radar in 2003 while I was using Flash to implement rich user experiences for a multi-modal war room.  At that time, I was developing desktop widgets that were used by analysts on large multi-touch plasma screens. Upon meeting the Xcelsius leadership team in San Diego, I knew it was something that I had to be a part of.

DEFINING A DASHBOARD

From 2005-2006 I spent most of my time standing in front of customers, consultants, and other technologists explaining what a “dashboard” was.  At that time there was nothing quite like Xcelsius in the marketplace because it used Excel as a data staging and modeling platform, and featured stunning visuals and animation. Until Xcelsius, there were very few enterprise dashboard technologies that used Flash. 

WHY THIS DASHBOARD TECHNOLOGY WAS DESTINED FOR SUCCESS

Consumers and business users have always shelved software because it is too complicated. It so happened that “dashboards” were an answer to those cries because a dashboard built with Xcelsius was approachable and easy to use. The dashboard build with Xcelsius not only looked shiny, but elements on the screen moved when you clicked on various controls. The power of Flash eliminated screen refresh and provided crisp graphics that could be deployed not only to the web, but also in a PPT or PDF. At that time every data visualization technology looked like Excel. Today all dashboard technologies look similar to Xcelsius, and some look  even better. Looking better is only half the battle and while Xcelsius got off to a great start, enterprise data analysis connectivity and integration became top priority.

With seemingly unlimited momentum I decided to jump right after SAP purchased BusinessObjects because I knew I could add more value to the community running ahead using the new SDK.

WHAT HAPPENED?

I always said up until about 18 months ago, Xcelsius was only a few development cycles from being the ultimate enterprise application design platform. Customer’s demands for “dashboards” evolved but progress was slow and innovation was non-existent. While Xcelsius did not evolve, partners like Antivia, Centigon Solutions and Inovista have long picked up the slack to not only cater to customer’s current needs, but to also look ahead and anticipate future requirements. The collective ecosystem consisting of dedicated developer communities, partners, and software vendors picked up and ran with what we now call SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards.

ENTER FLASH FALLOUT

The day iPads were announced sans Flash, I started mentally preparing myself to learn to live without the technology that I have been using since 1999 and championing in the enterprise since 2002. Adobe fumbled the opportunity to make Flash a viable mobile platform, and had been doing so as long as I can remember. Flash is still the best technology for rapidly developing and deploying rich user experiences on the desktop. I will hold this opinion until someone shows me a better HTML5 powered technology. We take for granted the vector rendering, animation, and data processing power of the Flash run-time. More importantly most people who are not intimately familiar with both Flash and HTML5 understand what the little effort, time, and code that is required to build Flash content that will technically work on any platform (including mobile) compared to HTML5.

NOW WHAT?

The “dashboard” itself has evolved and now many of us are referring to dashboards as “BI Apps”. Reporting technologies have improved greatly, and  data exploration tools have also become more prominent for visually dissecting data. Most of today’s dashboard projects with SAP BusinessObjects are approached the as professionally designed software applications instead of “enhanced reports.” Most of the success I have seen with Xcelsius are when organizations approach dashboards this way.

Flash run-time will cease to exist on any mobile device as older Android and RIM tablets are phased out. The great news is that SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards customers have a few options offered by third party vendors like Antivia, Exovva, and Inovista for re-using existing dashboards via mobile device. In addition, SAP also has an HTML5 publishing option on its way for later this year. There are tons of Xcelsius deployments worldwide and I have seen a continuous increase in the number of new projects going online with this technology so like everyone else, we have to wait and see what SAP comes with. As always I continuously evaluate the best platforms and tools for the job and keep pressing forward. For mobile, I have taken my team in a different direction than Xcelsius. However on the desktop, I still have yet to see a better dashboard tool in the marketplace when I look at what is possible with Xcelsius is combined with Antivia XWIS.

It will certainly be an interesting 12 months ahead of us and I hope to update this post as my personal running tab of what happens to dashboards and Xcelsius.

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